The Art of Songwriting: It’s the Melody, Stupid!

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star melodyCourtesy of Maybe We Ain’t That Young Anymore, I’ve discovered a new blog from The New York Times called Measure for Measure. The blog, which is about the art of songwriting, immediately spoke to me, for it validates exactly what I’m trying to do on this blog. Songs “are created by artists who draw on some combination of craft, skill and inspiration,” according to the blog, and guest bloggers such as Roseanne Cash and Andrew Bird are encouraged to reveal their secrets.

A guest post by Suzanne Vega (one of my faves) really hit me:

…I would string together a few chords that worked with whatever the idea at hand was, or whatever the mood of the day was. And then repeat them. The chords made a safe home for the melody, a bed for the melody to lie down on, sort of. So you had to shape the melody to the chords in some cool way. The idea that a melody could be its own clear idea didn’t really occur to me until much later…

It occurs to me that a melody is as precise and inviolate as a skeleton. You can vary it a little, but not much, really, if you want it to be recognizable.

Songs need a melody

At their most basic form, songs consist of melody; it’s the most recognizable aspect of a song. Toddlers know nothing of harmonies, augmented chords or aeolian cadences. But they can sing “Twinkle, Twinkle” or “Old MacDonald” spot-on. I play “God Only Knows” for my kids and sing harmonies to whatever song is playing, in the hopes that the light will turn on for them and they can recognize music at a new level. That will come.

People ask me why I have such a problem with hip-hop. Yes, it’s sometimes misogynistic, and the lyrics speak often of sex or violence. But the bottom line: There is no melody. Sure, most have some type of backing track – usually a sample from an older song – but it’s performance art, spoken poetry – not music.

I also love Suzanne Vega’s idea that chords provide a “bed for the melody to lie down on.” A melody can change so much based on what chords are accompanying it. Melody by itself can be limiting; but by varying the tempo, changing chords at various times, your options are limitless. It’s how those pieces are put together that separate good songs from masterpieces. I’ve always been fascinated by how that is created – what elements that, when put together, can make grown men cry and send millions to record stores to buy a record.

It’s truly magic.